Elul in the Conversation
Preparing the Heart for Rosh Hashanah
How you do you know when a holiday is coming?
For the Fourth of July, it’s when you see Fireworks stores popping up in the beginning of May.
For Halloween, it’s when the grocery store converts three aisles to candy sales on the Fifth of July.
For Thanksgiving, it’s when everyone is talking about Black Friday.
So the signs are there. But when the day comes, do you really feel ready? If you’re hosting a Thanksgiving dinner, the answer is probably no. But what if that holiday is something much weightier? What if the point of that holiday is to celebrate the creation of the universe, commemorate God as its King, and anticipate his coronation once and for all? The grocery store won’t be much help, no matter how many aisles they convert.
The answer to the question, that we as humans don’t want, but seem to always land on, is time. We need time to process what’s ahead of us. Time to grapple with the gravity of what God is doing in the world (and in our own hearts), and time to sort out the garbage that’s built up in the meantime.
We need time to forgive, time to feel forgiven, and time to heal from the pain. Anyone who says you don’t need that time is trying to sell you something. (Speaking of which, our book is available on Amazon!)
As I alluded to, there is indeed a holiday coming up which deals in the stuff of the universe: a Jewish festival called Rosh Hashanah, or Yom Teruah. Rosh Hashanah means, literally, Head of the Year, or New Year’s Day. Yom Teruah means Day of the Trumpet Blast. Or, more commonly, the Feast of Trumpets. Whenever Jews ring in a new year with the shofar, it is not simply a crazy party that you wake up from in need of a new calendar and half a bottle of aspirin. It is a time to connect the beginning and end of the universe together, and take stock of everything in between. (Actually, this might require some aspirin.) More importantly, it’s a time to take stock of our role in that story.
The rabbis of old knew this to be no easy task. They knew we would need time to prepare our souls for such an undertaking. Thus, we have the month of Elul. The month of spiritual preparation. Of reflection and contemplation. Of repentance and forgiveness.
How many of these words are relevant to a modern lifestyle? I would say zero. A “good day” is a day of productivity, not reflection. Boxes, after all, must be checked. And a “valuable person” is a person of accomplishment, not contemplation. How much less, then, can we make space for humiliating activities like repentance or forgiveness? Isn’t it easier to just ignore those feelings and get back to work?
At the time of this writing, I am looking back on August Term, and looking forward to my first Fall Semester at seminary. In addition to some orientations and introductory sessions, August Term featured an intensive Hebrew course. Naturally, I loved it. The Fall semester, by contrast, will be a complex blend of Old Testament and New Testament interpretation, Liturgics, Church History and Digital Media for Ministry. Not to mention chapel services every weekday morning and church on Sunday.
That’s weighty. My class topics, all at once, are likely to span from Adam to Augustine to SnapChat. How do I prepare my heart (and my brain) for that? I could read all the syllabi, purchase all the textbooks in advance, and decorate my Trapper Keeper. But will I really be ready? Have I taken the time to quiet my soul, to reflect on what’s gone before, to repent of my faithlessness, and forgive myself (and others) for anything that’s hindered me along the way?
I, like many others, am a creature of habit. And creatures of habit are epically discombobulated by change, especially when that change is dramatic. So here I am in Virginia, with familiar family, familiar furniture, and familiar absolutely-nothing-else.
Although I have so little control over my environment (every institute of higher learning is a closed system, therefore we, the students, are its subjects) the good news is this: I have a choice. I can choose to respond by wresting every ounce of control I can muster. Or I can choose to look to the God of shalom inside my heart. The God that never changes, no matter how much my circumstances do.
Elul, by definition, is a month. A full cycle of the moon. I don’t have that kind of time to devote to reflection, and (I’m guessing) you don’t either. But every moment we take to step off the treadmill and outside the grid has infinite worth. Imagine an archer who has time to shoot but no time to aim. Or a surgeon who has time to operate but no time to sterilize.
We need time. Time is the building block of a meaningful life. Time is the ultimate equalizer, and the only way to identify what’s truly important to us. Yes, there will always be shortcuts, but they’re never as short as they look.
Stay tuned for more about Rosh Hashanah and this year’s Fall Festivals.